This Flemish area of Belgium, nicknamed “Hoppeland,” is nestled against the French border and, in a country known for more than 800 beers, has the distinctive honor of being called the “brewers’ corner of Belgium.” There, five breweries are located less than a 10-minute drive from downtown Poperinge: the reclusive Trappist brewery of St. Sixtus, Van Eecke, De Bie, Leroy and St. Bernadus. So what better part of Belgium to plan to visit than where the hop cone and beer itself is most revered, treasured, respected and celebrated.
There are other famous locales where hops are grown in abundance, but none celebrate this perennial climbing plant with the enthusiasm that the people of Poperinge celebrate the big lovable bud, so central to beer making. This hop-growing region of Belgium houses one of the world’s only hop museums, has a big statue of a hop bud the size of a Hummer guarding the town’s entrance. And if all that weren’t enough, every three years Poperinge hosts a huge festival that crowns its own Hop Queen.
Hops found their way to Poperinge in 1332, because of a quarrel with the neighboring cloth-weaving town of Ypres, and originally, the hops came from the abbey of St. Bertins, St. Omer (France). The hops turned out to be a valuable alternative to the disappearing cloth trade. Presently, the following hop varieties are grown in Poperinge and the surrounding area: Challenger, Target, Admiral, Fuggles and Magnum.
One of the world’s only hop museums, situated a few blocks off of Poperinge’s main square, was put together by local historian Stijn Beoraeve, and it’s an interesting peek into the life and history of the hard-working harvesters of this precious fruit, the hop cone. The museum covers the life of this amazing climbing vine (or bine, as a hop vine is also called) and those who farm it. A guided tour of Poperinge’s National Hop Museum walks you through four seasons of cultivating this remarkable bud.
Until 1965, the hop harvest was accomplished by hand and every man, woman and child that lived in Hoppeland was involved in this annual endeavor. Traditionally, the harvest took place in September, so the school year started in October in Hoppeland. The town was assisted by as many as 10,000 migrant workers, as well. During Poperinge’s Hop Festival we visited a hop farm. Our guide described working in the hop fields as one of the best jobs of his youth and stated that it wasn’t uncommon for whole families to use the harvest as a working vacation.
One thing the museum didn’t explain was exactly how hard the hop farmer’s life is. We stayed at a working hop farm run by Rita Lobeau, which doubles as a bed-and-breakfast (d Hommelbelle). She has developed skin cancer from her extensive time in the sun. She has had a number of cancerous melanomas removed and can no longer tolerate long exposure to direct sunlight.